ACLU takes part in suing St. George over revocation of drag show event permit

In this file photo, Mitski Avalox, CEO of Southern Utah Drag Stars, speaks to the St. George City Council, St. George, Utah, April 11, 2023 | Photo courtesy of the city of St. George / CEC, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah announced Tuesday its partners are representing a local drag show organizer who is suing the city of St. George for discrimination and violating their constitutional rights.

In this file file, the St. George City Council, St. George, Utah March 16, 2023 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

According to a press release from the ACLU of Utah, Mitski Avalox, CEO of Southern Utah Drag Stars, filed a federal lawsuit against the city of St. George this week for denying her organization a special event permit to hold a family-friendly drag show in a city park.

Background: Permit revocation and the city’s 6-month ban on approving new events

The permit itself had originally been approved but was later revoked due to the fact Avalox advertised the event before the actual permit was issued, which violated city code. When she appealed the revocation, she was denied during the April 11 council meeting. During the same meeting, another event organizer, Indigo Klabanoff, had her previously approved event permit denied for the same reason.

Klabanoff would go on to say the city didn’t enforce this aspect of its special events ordinance evenly, as other events listed by the city that were in violation of the same ordinance were approved to move ahead.

In response, Assistant City Attorney Ryan Dooley said the city can be selective in the application of the code in this regard. Moreover, the city had carved out the exception of the no advertising rule for city-sponsored and recurring events that city staff and officials are already familiar with. New events, however, remained subject to the no-advertising-before-permit-approved rule.

In this file photo, Mitski Avalox, CEO of Southern Utah Drag Stars, speaks to the St. George City Council, St. George, Utah, April 11, 2023 | Photo courtesy of the city of St. George / CEC, St. George News

Further complicating the issue is the six-month ban on approving new events in the city that would be held on city property (events on private property are not subject to the ban). The ban, which started in mid-March, is meant to allow city staff time to study the pros and cons of the near-endless stream of special events the city approves and how they impact the local community. City staff is also meant to use the time to craft a better special event permitting process.

Council members and city officials have said events like those proposed by Southern Utah Drag Stars and Klabanoff were unfortunate victims of the way the city’s current ordinance was written.

However, Avalox claims the city is using the six-month event ban as a way to deter the approval of any future drag events. The suit goes on to claim the ban is part of a years-long effort by the city to keep drag shows and the people associated with them out of the public square, and therefore violates their civil rights.

The lawsuit

“Our lawsuit challenges the attempt by elected officials, who must uphold the rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution and Utah State Constitution, to push subjective viewpoints of what they deem appropriate,” Valentina De Fex, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Utah, said in the press release. “With this filing, we continue our commitment to stop efforts to discriminate against and silence LGBTQ+ and gender-diverse individuals in Utah.”

In this file photo, St. George Councilwoman Michelle Tanner has objections to the city sponsoring the Downtown Farmers Market, St. George, Utah, Jan. 5, 2023 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

The lawsuit names the city of St. George, the city manager, the mayor and each member of the City Council as the defendants. It also makes repeated mention of Councilwoman Michelle Tanner, whom the lawsuit describes as being “a vocal critic of the LGBTQ+ community in St. George.”

The lawsuit states:

The City’s denial of Plaintiffs’ permit application was part of a campaign by City officials, including Councilmember Michelle Tanner, to suppress drag performances in the City. That campaign is motivated by unfounded fears, prejudice, and moral disapproval of the LGBTQ+ community. In particular, it has been catalyzed by the false conspiracy theory that LGBTQ+ individuals, and drag performers in particular, seek to “groom” children “in order to abuse them”; at least one city council member has outright accused drag performers who perform “for children” of “PREDATORY behavior.” That same member has publicly advocated for ordinances outright banning drag performance from public spaces; evidence obtained through public records requests suggests that the City Council is currently considering implementing such a ban.”

The denial of the permit is also argued to be a way for the city to “mask the discriminatory intent” behind its decision, and that the city “carved out an exception in the moratorium to give itself complete discretion to issue permits to events that it favors.”

The actions of the City Council communicate that the LGBTQ+ community is “unwelcome and unworthy to exist in public spaces” and wishes to “silence artistic expression in an effort to score political points under the mantle of being opposed to LGBTQ+ people’s civil rights,” according to the lawsuit.

In this file photo, (L-R) St. George resident Micah Barrick and “We’re Here” star Bob the Drag Queen on the Town Square Park stage, St. George, Utah, June 3, 2022 | Photo courtesy of HBO, St. George News

Southern Utah Drag Stars was able to find a private venue for its canceled April drag show in the form of a dance studio in St. George. However, the lawsuit notes that event would be canceled by the business owner due to “threats against the safety of their employees.”

At the conclusion of the legal brief, Avalox and the ALCU are asking the court to find the City in violation of freedom of speech and the civil rights of LGBTQ-plus individuals based on actions related to the city’s revocation of the Southern Utah Drag Star’s event permit.

The court is also asked to put an injunction on the city from enforcing its six-month event ban as far as Southern Utah Drag Stars is concerned and to grant the group an event permit fore a future date.

David Cordero, a spokesman for the city of St. George, spoke to St. George News Tuesday afternoon and said the city is aware of the lawsuit and did not offer additional comment.

A detailed overview of the case can be found in the 43-page brief, which can be found in its entirety here.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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